Midnight Club: Los Angeles Review (Xbox 360)
A lot of street-racing games seem to be going the "open world" route lately. You have Test Drive Unlimited available, where you can tool around a realistic Hawaii location for hours on end. You have other titles like Burnout Paradise, where you can fly around an open city and lay waste to rush hour traffic. The "original" street racing game, Need For Speed, has seen numerous changes over the years, but Need for Speed Underground 2 is still one of my favorite racers.
Now, into this already crowded genre comes Midnight Club Los Angeles. The question is whether there’s enough here that’s different enough to keep you playing it. The answer will vary, depending on your tastes.
Graphically, the game is gorgeous. The Los Angeles setting has been created quite beautifully with major landmarks placed around this smaller-scale version. As you fly around the city blocks, you’ll see a city that’s much more "alive" than other street racers on the market.
The single greatest innovation that Rockstar uses to show this off is the GPS map. When you press the back button, you quickly zoom out to a bird's eye view of the city without any loading screens. You can zoom in and scroll this GPS map around, looking for paths that you may have missed when flying by at 130 mph. When you select a destination or press the back button again, the camera zooms right back to your car. It may be the coolest map integration I’ve ever seen in a game.\
And you’ll want to check out the city. Traffic patterns look realistic; pedestrians are plentiful along the sidewalks (although oddly enough, you cannot hit them with a vehicle, even if you plow through a packed crowd of them); the day and night cycle includes some stunning lighting effects; and overall, you would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful street-racing environment to spend your time in.
Aurally, it’s just as nice. The soundtrack is actually quite good for this type of game, and the engines sound believable. Crunches from collisions will make you cringe, and the familiar tire squeal sounds -- well, pretty much like almost every other racing game, makes a tire squealing sound. How many ways can you actually record a tire squeal, anyway? Overall, the sound package is nice, especially when you hear the police chatter coming over your scanner.
Oh yeah, the police. They will actually patrol the streets, and unlike most street racing games, they will pull you over if you break ANY laws. If you run through a red light, you are going to get chased -- even if you are not currently in a race. You need to obey the traffic rules when the cops are around (you can’t miss when they are, since the radar detector blips and your HUD flashes), as getting into a chase while you are on your way to a race event can be annoying at best.
But the eye candy, sound and believable environment do not stop with the police. Midnight Club games are centered around a plethora of customization options. Most are aesthetic in nature, although, you have some performance upgrades available as well (usually grouped by "stages"" that are unlocked as you race).
As you earn cash via racing, you have the option to head to the garage and customize your vehicle in a mind-boggling number of ways. Raise and lower the ride height, increase rim size, adjust tire profile and thickness, tint your windows, swap out aftermarket body parts -- even the door opening method (normal or scissor, for example) can be changed.
To top it all off, you can choose from a number of paint types (gloss, metallic, matte, etc.) and throw a vinyl set on top of that. You can even change the steering wheel and color of your dash gauges, which you can see while in the incredible cockpit camera. If you can do it to a real car, you can probably get pretty close in Midnight Club’s garage, at least as far as visual modifications are concerned.
Performance is another matter. You have basic groups and stages to upgrade, but no individual aftermarket parts like the Need For Speed games. It’s not an overwhelming flaw because your car will still have better performance in whatever area you upgrade. You just won’t have the ability to slap a new "Holley" carb on your manifold. You’ll simply buy the next-higher-stage of intake upgrades instead.
Once you get your vehicle on the streets, though, you’ll find a responsive control scheme that will allow you to pull off precise cornering maneuvers with ease. The controls are incredibly quick to react, but not unbelievably pinpoint-accurate, and each of the three car classes (muscle, tuner and exotic) handle differently. You’ll need to really learn to drive all three to advance through the game, as certain missions (all supplied via your cell phone) will require you to win races with different classes of cars and motorcycles.
That brings me to the one nagging problem I constantly have with Midnight Club LA: There is not a real feeling of progression or return on investment when moving from class to class and upgrade to upgrade.
When you go through and upgrade your engine package, so will all of your A.I. competitors. If you go get a much faster car, so will all of your competitors. If you even swap to a motorcycle to zip around through traffic, suddenly your races will include at least one other cyclist.
I actually started progressing through the game without even touching the performance upgrades, except for Nitrous, and had almost the exact same experience as when I dropped thousands into each car. The races always had the same tension, and while I was hardly ever made to feel as if I had no hope of winning, it certainly wasn’t easy. But the cars always matched mine, so why spend the cash?
You see, Rockstar put a clever little bit of coding in this version, which almost turns it into a racing MMO, without the "MMO" part. For anybody who has ever played a massively multiplayer online game, the genre has a hook to keep you "grinding" away at the next level or pursuing that next piece of gear. It’s not exactly a new concept, but it’s designed to keep your subscription dollars rolling in since it takes a while to do anything worthwhile.
Midnight Club LA shares a lot of that concept, which is bizarre in a racing game. The objective of the "tuner culture" street-racing games usually revolves around winning races for cash, and spending that cash on upgrades. That’s not revolutionary or anything. But usually, you feel much more powerful when you boost your car’s performance through the roof, making an unstoppable beast that unleashes hell on the rest of the field as soon as the green flag drops.
Not so here. You’ll earn a small amount of cash, and only be able to upgrade a few parts at first since the rest are locked. When you do that, the A.I. will do the same, as mentioned previously. When you can afford the rest of the upgrades, the A.I. cars boost again. You are left with cars that constantly scale to your level; so, even if you crank your car through the roof, you’ll still have the same challenge every race.
That’s both a positive and a negative. It’s never too easy of a game, no matter what you do. It’s also not too hard. The real problem I have with this system is that it just feels artificial -- obviously it’s a game, so the entire experience is artificial. What I mean is that the races and series almost have a scripted feel to them.
When you spend a lot of time with the game, you’ll find that some races you can drive like a complete idiot and still win in the end. I had a race where I had a head-on collision with almost every car I crossed paths with, and somehow in the end, went blasting by the entire field in a couple of corners to win it -- all while having no windows, a bumper hanging off, and a car that looked like it should have been in the junk heap.
Other races I’ve driven flawlessly. I don’t burn a bunch of speed on power slides; I hit each corner right on the mark; and I fly through the course. The entire A.I. field sits right on my rear bumper, so if I happen to miss a corner near the end of the race, I go from first to worst in the span of a few seconds.
I like that kind of a challenge, but where it gets really weird is when the A.I. cars actually bump you and send you into a tree and THEN boost off into the sunset. You can tell this is going to happen from the opening gun, when the entire field zips off in front of you, leaving you to eat its dust.
You’ll spend the rest of the race attempting to catch back up, and even if you do, a lot of times the field will just knock you around and keep you muddled in the pack, or force you into a wreck to ensure that one of the A.I. cars wins.
And THAT, my friends, is why it’s so much like an MMO. Series races in the game usually deal with objectives like being the first to win three races. When you have six cars in the mix, the majority of your series will end up with an alarmingly high number of two-race-win ties at the top of the leaderboard, before somebody finally wins the third. That "somebody" is usually you, as one of the last races in the series will leave you with a brain dead A.I. field that you can decimate by 20 seconds, no matter what kind of car you are in.
So you’re left grinding a bunch of series races that feel somewhat scripted due to wildly fluctuating A.I. performance levels. A simple goal to win three races may take eight or nine races to complete since you’re almost guaranteed to get destroyed in a few of them. It almost feels like it’s an artificial way to get the players to spend more time going from series to series while ensuring that they do not get through the game too quickly. The game scales, it rubber bands, and sometimes it feels like it's flat-out cheating to artificially lengthen the series.
The good news is that multiplayer gets rid of all of that. Going online is a quick jump from the start menu, and squaring off against real people is (usually) better than the A.I. You have everything from straight circuit races to capture the flag, in addition to a bunch of other modes. The bad news is that you need to actually progress through the single-player mode to get the tricked-out cars to carry over into multiplayer. I guarantee you that your opponents will have them.
When you add it all up, you have an extremely gorgeous, incredibly detailed and wildly unpredictable game. Some people will love that. Personally, I don’t really have any desire to play it much more. I don’t get a sense of progression with the scaling cars and artificial feel to the races, and I can’t really find the drive (pun intended) to hop into a game that just doesn’t feel like it’s designed to make me have fun.
It may sound bizarre, but it’s like the game wants to punish me for every mistake, but not reward me for doing well. It’s almost like that parent that is never satisfied. You can do the best you can, but at the end of the day, you will probably feel a little empty and unfulfilled. But if you are a masochist, or don’t mind spending countless hours racing extended series runs for little gain, you’ll probably have a blast. One thing’s for certain: If you spend $60 on Midnight Club LA and play it to its completion, you are going to get your money’s worth.
I’m just not sure it’s something I could recommend to everyone.
Gameplay: The controls are responsive, and the racing is always challenging. Sometimes it just feels a bit rigged.
Sound: Great soundtrack, and the engine sounds do a great job of individualizing the cars.
Entertainment Value: The potential is there to be really entertained if you want to be fighting for your racing life at every corner.
Learning Curve: There isn’t a huge learning curve. Once you come to grips with how the cars handle, you’ll just be left to deal with the A.I. (or human) cars.
Online Play: Smooth, with a nice selection of modes. It would be nice to have all cars available, even if they are not all customized. Getting your doors blown off as a newbie won’t be fun for many people.
Score: 7.5 (Good)